I gave a couple of talks on Internet safety last week. I spoke to a group of middle school students and a group of third and fourth graders at a summer technology camp. As always I learned a lot from teaching kids.
I asked the younger kids for examples of good passwords and was astounded at how great the passwords they recommended. They were long and usually consisted of multiple small words or a mix of words and numbers. They seemed pretty random as well. Little kids put things together in ways that seem logical in their minds but seem completely opaque to adults. But at the same time they thought there were one letter passwords that would be hard to guess. When I pointed out that someone could try all the letters one at a time I could see the gears turning as they worked that out. But they did seem to get it.
With the older kids I talked a little about predators and again the thinking was mixed. Kids who know that there are people who target kids who are aged 10 to 12 think they are protected by saying they are 16. They aren't actually thinking that there is a whole other set of people who target 16 year olds.
Kids do understand that people on the Internet are not always who they seem to be. And that makes sense. Most kids who lie about their age on different community sites are savvy enough to know that they are not the only ones doing so. They know that there are creepy people on the Internet and that they should avoid them. In fact I have heard more then a few stories, especially from girls, about attempts by strangers to initiate sexual conversations. Most of the time girls will just shut off the discussion and leave the virtual area.
They generally don't report these incidents though and reporting them is one of the things I encourage. The little ones seemed much more willing to report things to their parents. I guess the older kids like to think they can handle things on their own. They may be smarter than adults think they are but they are not always as smart as they think they are.
I really believe that education is the way to go with kids and Internet safety. According to this article even Congress is starting to come around to that idea. I think that the lesson of Sleeping Beauty is instructive here. Had her parents educated Beauty about the dangers of spinning wheels she would not have been as likely to prick her finger on one when she ran into it for the first time in her life. Kids are going to run into predictors no matter how much we try to shield them. What we have to do is educate them on how to deal with the situation when it happens.
We teach children about meeting strangers in real life and they need to know the Cyberspace equivalent events and how to deal with them.